#OscarsSoTrite: The Academy can't win
The Academy Awards are one of the most-widely watched spectacles on television each year, and with the added drama of the diversity controversy, the skepticism of the show has gotten so feverish that the awards end up mostly ignored. This year’s show is a better example of this than any show in recent years. Chris Rock was a unique and polarizing force from the moment the show started. Whether you reacted positively or negatively to him, three things were undeniable about the show: the production elements were an absolute disaster, Rock was hilarious, and the politics were noticeably radical for a space typically so sanitary.
These three elements combined to produce a show that was surprisingly engaging, and — in an even more rare feat for the Oscars — genuinely worth talking about.
I took a perverse joy in the constantly unfolding disaster that was the technical side of the Academy Awards, but for those interested in a watching a more fluid show, it was likely a rough night. From the planning of the show to the camera work, the show was bloated, messy, over-ambitious at the wrong times, and under-ambitious at others. It is unbelievable that a show dedicated to celebrating excellent filmmaking could be filmed this poorly. Even when the broadcast wasn’t cutting to stumbling cameras pointed at nothing, the show was presented in an awkward and bizarre way.
The production team fell into the film school trap of “Moving the camera automatically makes it interesting.” The device used in each of the major acting categories where the camera scanned to put a picture of each nominee in the background while they were referenced fell flat. It was distracting and led the presenters' speeches to be overly-scripted. The camera incessantly moved during most presenters’ appearances. It didn’t look good, and was an overthinking of the most simple part of the show.
The musical performances were equally uneven and misguided. Sam Smith and The Weeknd both performed mediocre songs which needed dynamic production elements to become worthwhile. They were met with none. Lady Gaga’s performance was so dynamic that simply placing her at a piano was enough to make it a show highlight. Unfortunately, the presentation featured crazy cuts and a recurring aerial shot that spiraled down onto Gaga.
Luckily, Chris Rock and his writer’s room managed to make the show consistently funny throughout by playing to Rock’s strengths in a way that past shows led by Ellen Degeneres and Neil Patrick Harris failed to. It helps that Rock is a comedic genius and arguably the perfect awards show host.
His opening monologue encapsulated this perfectly. It was an impressive bit of stand-up that managed to be provocative without veering into the off-puttingly cruel territory of Ricky Gervais at the Golden Globes — besides the odd Jada Pinkett-Smith tangent, which we’ll get to later. He managed to discuss race in a meaningful way without losing the support of his audience, which — like it or not — is a crucial part of his job.
The moments when the audience wasn’t on board were equally funny and even more captivating: “director of diversity” Stacey Dash, the sweat shop joke, the monologue reference to cops shooting black people. When Harris lost his audience last year, it was due to a poorly-written joke flopping, and his immediate squirming response. Rock lost his audience by veering outside of the parameters of what they were used to seeing in this space, and clearly taking joy in their discomfort. It was exciting to see something unexpected in a positive way at the Academy Awards.
The show would have had even more success if Rock was willing to challenge his audience more regularly. This is where Rock’s comments about Oscars defector Jada Pinkett-Smith come back into play. Addressing the #OscarsSoWhite protestors, Rock explained that Smith declining an invitation to the Oscars is like him declining an invitation to Rihanna’s panties: there was no invitation. He also reinforced the idea that Smith is only boycotting because her husband wasn’t nominated for “Concussion.”
The reaction of the audience made it clear that this statement was reinforcing the dominating sentiment among them: the people who are upset about the lack of diversity at the Oscars are only mad because they aren’t good enough and want a handout of something they don’t deserve. Some of the people in the crowd expressed this sentiment publicly; others disagreed, and others likely agreed silently.
It’s not the end of the world that Rock represented this point of view. The more damaging act was when he circled back around to present the case of the other side: he failed to do so with the same fervor and punch of his comments about Smith. He went as far to call Hollywood racist, but made sure to massage the audience into it by assuring them they weren’t that racist. His biggest failure was his monologue's conclusion. He attempted to shoehorn in comments about a Twitter campaign to ask female guests about more than just their dress, and ended up distracting from the diversity issue that would dominate the whole show.
It was thrilling to see these issues addressed in an honest way in this space, but it certainly fell short of expectations. Rock was the absolute perfect host for this year and for this controversy, and by no means did he choke. He could have came out to the tune of a “Wow, there are so many white people here!” joke, fire off a couple easy zingers about the boycott, and move on. He didn’t. He dedicated all of his time on a massive medium to address an issue he clearly cared about. It was a good show, but it was still too safe to be great.
As far as the awards go, they weren't much different than usual. Did Mark Rylance need to be recognized for "Bridge of Spies?" Probably not. That was a pretty good place to recognize the movie that would eventually go on to win best picture with another major award. They even got the "Mark R-" part right, just forgot the "-uffalo" after.
The biggest non-Chris-Rock joy of the night was watching the eccentric cast of characters that made up the crew of "Mad Max: Fury Road" parade across the stage. The standout of this crew of course being costume designer Jenny Beavan. The Oscars could certainly use a little more rhinestone-embroidered leather jackets.
The biggest mistake of the night was unsurprising, but frustrating given how the night had gone so far. After giving almost every single technical award to "Mad Max: Fury Road," why reward an inferior film with Best Director? It again reinforces the narrative I think we're all tired of criticizing: the safe and pretentious nature of The Academy's choices. Sure, they're willing to acknowledge that "Fury Road" is an incomparable technical achievement, but it's not the type of movie that gets to play with the big boys.
Some are likely to say the same about Best Picture winner "Spotlight," but at the risk of hypocrisy, I decline to. "Spotlight" may not be a new or sexy look for Best Picture, but I do think it's a great and important film. Those are rare enough qualities for a Best Picture winner that I'm willing to give it a slide. Besides, the real best picture of 2015 — Pixar's "Inside Out" — wasn't even nominated, so any winner would have been wrong.
The 88th Academy Awards finally gave us something new to talk about in both positive in negative ways. It was an interesting political experience, a disastrous entertainment one, and a largely unsurprising awards ceremony. If you're looking for a quality entertainment experience, or an accurate representation of the year in cinema: you've come to the wrong place. If you're looking to be confused, frustrated, but come out on the other side with plenty to talk about: maybe you've found your home.
For more information about the controversy surrounding this year's Oscar ceremony, read the Corsair's coverage of the protest held outside of the event.